Problems In Cyberspace Can Cause Real World Hurt

Internet problems are not esoteric, theoretical issues in Cyberspace. Indeed, they can have real world implications.

For example, as recently reported by The Washington Post, the Hatch Nuclear Power Plant in Georgia was forced into an emergency shutdown for two days subsequent to the installation of a software update on just one computer that operated the plant's business network.

This computer reportedly was designed to monitor chemical and diagnostic data from the plant's main control systems. The purpose of the software update in question was to synchronize data on the systems.

After the installation of the software update, the computer rebooted, resetting the data on the control systems. This reportedly led to safety systems mistakenly interpreting the situation as a drop in the level of water reservoirs that cool radioactive nuclear fuel rods. Automated emergency safety systems consequently initiated a plant shutdown.

The good news is that the emergency safety systems appear to have worked as designed. The less good news is that a plant shutdown truly was not necessary. This brings home the point that some computer systems at key facilities are connected to control systems that apparently were not designed with security as a key feature.

According to The Washington Post, there is worry among experts that weaknesses were introduced into electrical grid regulatory systems when power companies switched control of generation and distribution equipment from internal networks to supervisory and data acquisition systems, the latter of which can be accessed via phone lines and the Internet.

This switch potentially can increase productivity, while permitting the remote operation of equipment. However, it may also open previously closed systems due to Cyber events or attacks.

Indeed, The Washington Post reports that two years ago a unit of the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant was shut down after the failure of two water recirculation pumps. The pumps apparently locked up because of a heavy flow of computer data on the plant's internal control system network, according to an investigation.
So, what's the bottom line here?

When facilities such as nuclear power plants can be shut down because of computer data traffic or software updates, it is clear that Internet issues are not confined to Cyberspace, and can have true impact here on terra firma.

It is important that industry segments properly analyze how best to ensure the integrity and security of their information and technology systems. This makes good business and safety sense.

And if industry does not take such steps, they may find that the government will tell them what they need to do. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reportedly is already considering Cyber security regulations.

Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at [email protected]. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line.

This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.